In 2001, I was a sophomore at the University of Virginia, an international student from Pakistan studying foreign affairs with the lofty earnestness only a college kid could have. On the morning of September 11, I was jarred awake by the sound of my phone ringing. My friend ordered me to get out of bed and turn on the news. Confused and half-awake, I flipped on my television just as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center in New York City. I watched, shell-shocked, as news agencies replayed the footage of buildings collapsing, of people crying and running, of billowing smoke and scattered debris.
I remember that morning vividly because it was the day the world changed, when the narrative shifted. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 ultimately cast the world in a harsh and polarizing light, as countries and their citizens were placed on either side of an arbitrarily imposed line, the not-so-cleverly dubbed “Axis of Evil.” As a Pakistani Muslim student in the United States, the nuances of my identity were suddenly a topic of conversation, a far cry from the generic “Asian/Pacific Islander” box I checked on my college application just two years earlier.
Nine years after the September 11 attacks, those same issues – of Islam’s place in America, of the perceived clash between the West and the “Muslim World” – are not only still part of the conversation, they have become intensified. On the recent cover of TIME magazine, the media outlet asked the question, “Is America Islamophobic?” A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in August 2010 found that 38 per cent of Americans polled said they had an unfavorable view of Islam, with most saying they know “very little” about the religion. According to Pew, favorable opinions of Islam have declined since 2005.
Given these numbers and the increasing perception of Islamophobia in America, how much of these attitudes can be traced back to the 9/11 attacks in 2001? According to Peter Mandaville, professor of Government and Islamic Studies at George Mason University and author of Global Political Islam, what we are seeing now is not an unprecedented moment and many of these issues “have been lurking beneath the surface for some time, arguably even before the 9/11 attacks.” However, he noted, “there have been a number of events and notable moments that have brought this under-the-surface phenomenon into the open, with high degrees of intensity.”
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, professor and Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., echoed, “After 9/11, we saw a gap open wide between Muslims and non-Muslims, and even though many of us worked hard to close that gap through interfaith dialogue and understanding, all that was needed was a catalyst to reignite these tensions.” Some of these catalytic events include the debate over Park 51, the dubbed “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City and, most recently, the proposed “Burn a Quran Day” by a pastor in Florida, two issues widely covered by the American news media.
While some have called these events isolated incidents not representative of a wider phenomenon, Ahmed says this is a misconception, noting that the suspicion and distrust of Muslims have been occurring for the last several years. In his recently released book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, the most comprehensive anthropological study ever done of Muslims in America, Ahmed and his team visited over 100 mosques throughout the United States, analyzing the American Muslim experience, as well as attitudes towards this community. On the journey, they reported a number of incidents of mosques that had been attacked or vandalized, and noted an atmosphere of constant tension that has existed since 2001.
Islam, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, is often vilified as the “other,” and this lack of understanding has been exacerbated in recent years, not only by events in the United States, but also by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by perceptions of Pakistan as “the most dangerous nation in the world,” by militant and terrorist threats, and the burqa ban debate in Europe, to name a few. Moreover, as anti-American sentiment increases abroad as the result of US policies, so does this corresponding fear and mistrust of this perceived monolithic “Muslim World,” resulting in a heightened cycle of intolerance and fear.
According to both Mandaville and Ahmed, the failure of the Muslim leadership to explain the religion in the face of Islamist extremism is partly to blame. Mandaville noted, “Although there have been attempts by Muslim-Americans to rebrand the narrative, much of this messaging hasn’t hit the mainstream media. The public relations strategy therefore has to be reworked and become more comprehensive and strategic.” Muslim leaders must also ramp up their efforts at the interfaith level, working with Christian and Jewish leaders to emphasize that “Islam is not an other, it’s a firm component of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.” Mandaville added, “Muslims have to also stop being apologetic. The fact that they have to legitimize their voice by renouncing terrorism before they’re even allowed to speak is a symptom of the overarching problem.”
It is September 11, 2010, and it seems we are exactly where we were nine years ago, a world divided by fear, misunderstanding, intolerance, and hatred. However, as we continue to debate the Islamophobia phenomenon in the West and the anti-American sentiment elsewhere, it is important to understand the root causes behind these issues and the role both sides play in exacerbating this vicious cycle. In an increasingly interconnected world, global issues can have local ramifications and vice versa. Understanding perceptions of Islam, as well as Pakistan, through the 9/11 lens is important in developing solutions and comprehensive strategies, so that we all can – finally – move forward.CHUP: Changing Up Pakistan and tweets at twitter.com/kalsoom82.
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